Five feet isn’t a whole lot of space, but Russia apparently thinks it’s just enough to send the U.S. a message. On Monday, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet sidled up alongside a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane flying over the Baltic Sea, coming within 5 feet of the American aircraft. The Russian jet lingered for a few minutes, then veered away.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin said a NATO F-16 fighter jet flew up to a Russian plane carrying Kremlin Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, again over the Baltic. Shoigu landed safely in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, but the incident clearly rankled the Kremlin. As of Wednesday afternoon, NATO had not confirmed the Russian report.
Not yet dogfights, just dogs barking at each other.
Nevertheless, using fighter jets to parry and riposte puts both countries at risk of a confrontation that neither could easily walk — or fly — away from. Before this gets out of hand, the administrations of President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin need to remind themselves that neither side needs or wants direct military engagement.
The apparent cause of all this aerial jousting was the downing Sunday of a Syrian warplane by an American F-18 fighter jet. The U.S. says the Syrian Su-22 aircraft had been dropping bombs near members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed militia of Kurdish and Arab fighters who have begun the offensive to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State militant group.
The U.S. takedown of the Syrian bomber incensed Moscow. The Russian Defense Ministry said it would start tracking as potential targets U.S.-led coalition warplanes flying in Syrian airspace controlled by the Russian-backed Bashar Assad regime, though it stopped short of saying it would shoot down those planes.
The Pentagon knew that taking down one of Assad’s fighter jets would infuriate the Kremlin, but it was the right decision. A key to defeating Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters has always been to rout them out of their two major strongholds in the Middle East: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Iraqi forces are well on their way to wrapping up the job in Mosul. In Raqqa, the U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters stands the best chance of reclaiming that city.
When Assad attacks SDF fighters, he makes it that much harder for the U.S. and the international community to achieve victory. But he now knows that if his forces again attack SDF fighters, they risk the same fate that befell the Syrian Su-22.
Achieving victory over ISIS in Raqqa, by the way, should be as much of a goal for Moscow as it is for Washington. The militant who killed 16 people in an attack on a subway train in St. Petersburg in April is suspected of having links to ISIS. And a new seedbed for ISIS recruits has emerged in Central Asia’s former Soviet republics, which enjoy visa-free travel with Russia. The U.S. and Russia have reams of divergent views and goals, but defeating ISIS shouldn’t be one of them.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE